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Opinion

'Below expectations but probably not surprising': Reflecting on Australia's Olympic rugby campaigns

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Roar Rookie
3rd August, 2021
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While social media is rarely indicative of the broader community’s view, it was good to see the response from newbies watching rugby sevens for the first time at the Olympics.

A bit of Twitter banter got people really excited when an American said you could pick a team of NFL players and they would clean up at the Olympics.

In addition, there were fans getting stuck into the USA teams’ performance which was a bit over the top but does indicate they actually have an interest.

Then there was the overwhelming support for the Fijiana.

In terms of expectations, the Fiji men and New Zealand women winning went to script.

The highlights included how the Fijians play rugby and the emotion they showed post winning the gold medal. Add to this the latino emotion (which we saw in Australia last season) of Argentina winning the bronze, then Fijiana surprising many by taking out the bronze in the women’s sevens.

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So how did the Australian teams fare?

Men
The men’s team finished seventh, which probably reflects where they are currently – around that fifth, sixth, seventh mark.

In saying that, they had a tough draw, suffering losses to all three of the medallists – Argentina and New Zealand in the pool stage, and Fiji in the quarter-final.

Maurice Longbottom stood out, Samu Kerevi added size and strength as an impact player, Lewis Holland has lost a bit of speed but is still smart and has the best long pass, while Dietrich Roache played very well for a newbie.

The rest of the squad are pretty much of a muchness – quality players but none who inspire excitement that they will break the game open or make a game-changing defensive play.

Despite a big turnover of players since Rio 2016, they don’t seem to have improved much. They still do not have the size, physicality or outright speed of the other teams.

The direction this squad takes will no doubt depend on the recommencement of the World Series and Rugby AU funding.

Samu Kerevi of Team Australia

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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Women
New Zealand, with ten players backing up from Rio 2016, were pretty much unbeatable. We did see the rise of France, Fijiana, significant improvement by China and the Great Britain team performed very well.

Australia finished fifth and the two games they lost were only by two points, which was below expectations but probably not surprising. They started their campaign well but buckled a bit against the bigger teams.

In summary they do not seem to have progressed much since 2016, with only five returning from Rio.

Before the tournament, captain Sharni Williams said, “We will have the scrap to win everything, we are probably one of the smallest teams and as a result we know we have to get in there and have a go.” This rang true (a bit like the men’s team).

We also missed Rio leaders like Emilee Cherry, Chloe Dalton and Alicia Quirk, with too much reliance on Charlotte Caslick.

Over the last couple of years it seems the squad was stuck between keeping the players from Rio and the need to move. Then with injuries and retirement, the new players did not have the time to build combinations.

So who had a good Olympics campaign? The mainstays of the team – Caslick, Vani Pelite and Williams – are always good. In particular, Caslick and Pelite are just outstanding.

Australian rugby 7s player Charlotte Caslick runs the ball at the Sydney 7s

Charlotte Caslick (Karen Watson)

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Emma Tonegato did well coming back from injury but was not at her best. Credit to Demi Hayes, who had an exceptional Olympics, especially in defence.

Youngsters Faith Nathan and Madison Ashby are smart, and Sariah Paki has some toughness about her. There were a couple of debutants which, while good players, was asking a bit much at the Olympics.

Our women still have the skills, fitness and footy smarts but lack size. They cannot dominate in defence to force an error, they almost need to wait for the opposition to make one. But they are still a high-quality side with some very good players.

Like rugby more generally in Australia, they suffer from so many footy codes diluting the available talent. Wonder if the women will give NRLW a go now?

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So where are we at? In simple terms, a review of the sevens program will occur. The main issue is where will Rugby AU prioritise sevens and will the World Series recommence?

Unfortunately Rugby AU’s financial limitations will result in a battle between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. Plus there is a women’s 5s World Cup next year too.

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